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Mary Kiernan passed away May 10; she recently celebrated 40 years with Tropical Shipping.

Tropical Shipping Vessel Analyst Mary Kiernan, dubbed “the Mother of Tropical,” celebrated 40 years with the company on March 18, 2021. She passed away last week due to a post-surgery infection, leaving coworkers in West Palm Beach and beyond reeling.

Kiernan was hired in 1981 to handle numerous administrative roles at the growing company, including switchboard operator, mail clerk, file room clerk, and telex operator. Saltchuk Senior Vice President and Managing Director Rick Murrell, former President and CEO of Tropical, remembers Kiernan during her earliest days with the company.

“Like many excellent members of the Tropical team, my first memory of Mary was when she was working the receptionist desk,” he said. “She was a pleasant, no-nonsense, matter-of-fact person with an incredible sense of humor.”

In an essay she wrote to commemorate the March anniversary, she explained her rise through the company. Tropical had opened ports in Barbados and Trinidad around the time of her hiring, which created a growing need to ensure accurate documentation to avoid customs hassles. She and three others new to Tropical spent six months training to produce those documents.

“At that point, any new ports opened were given to us: St. Barths, Anguilla, St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Maarten,” she wrote.

After two years, she moved to Import Services. According to Kiernan, when she started, there was a northbound trade of 5 percent and little to no inter-island trade.

“With the advent of Puerto Plata, Belize and Honduras refrigerated cargo, and 807 inter-island cargo, the northbound and inter-island trade grew to 25 percent of the company.”

Current Tropical Shipping President and CEO Jeff Fiser met Kiernan in 1994 when he went to work for Tropical for the first time.

“I was in an orientation learning about Tropical, and she was in charge of documentation for several islands,” Fiser said. “That involved managing all the paperwork associated with a shipment – getting invoices and documentation from customers, rating the shipment, and producing a bill of lading in a short amount of time. It involved a lot of contact with internal Tropical teams and also the customer. It involved getting all the paperwork together and onto the ship before it left Port. My first impression was that she was excellent at her job and ran her department very well. Employees liked her, yet respected her, and customers loved her.”

After 15 years in imports and seven spent working on the T-Link project, Kiernan moved to her dream job in 2004: Vessel Scheduling.

“She was in the Control Center, which manages bookings and pulls all the cargo together to make a sailing,” Fiser explained. “Her role was on the vessel scheduling side, along with managing bookings and troubleshooting. She knew our T-Link system very well. She produced several reports we used to run the business.”

“What impressed me most about Mary wasn’t just the actions she took during her work, but all the ‘extras’ she took on, and the humor and insights she provided,” said Murrell. “An example is the ‘snippets; she tag-lined on the daily vessel status reports. She had an infectious nature of inclusion and caring for others.”

Kiernan, wearing a sunhat and sunglasses, stands behind Jeff Fiser at a christening.
Kiernan, left, and Tropical President and CEO Jeff Fiser at the 2018 christening of the Tropic Freedom.

‘Care for and love each other’

Kiernan was a cheerleader for various Tropical charities and activities.

“You do not work for these people,” Mary wrote of her mentors and friends. “You work with them. I got married while at Tropical. I organized the first Thanksgiving Luncheon. I (helped) publish two cookbooks highlighting the culinary skills of our fellow employees. I am honored to be the Godmother of the Tropic Freedom. I (helped) organize the first “Food for Families” drive…and I spearheaded the first “Adopt a Family” at Tropical. And I’m currently publishing the “Afternoon Chuckle,” which started as a way to get through the COVID pandemic,” as well as the “People of Tropical” newsletter and the “Daily Flash.”

Kiernan also collected hundreds of kittens during her 40 years at Tropical and helped facilitate medical attention, shelter, and adoption.

“Folks like Mary made Tropical culture what it is today,” Fiser said. “She was chosen to be the Godmother of the Tropic Freedom – one of our new ships. She was absolutely thrilled to be recognized for her contributions but as humble as ever. You could see the pride in her eyes along with her love of Tropical at the ceremony.  It was a real sense of satisfaction for all of us to see her as that ceremony.”

Kiernan and Rick pose for a photo while employees stand in line for food behind them.
Kiernan, right, with Saltchuk Senior Vice President and Managing Director Rick Murrell, former President and CEO of Tropical Shipping, at one of the company’s famed Thanksgiving luncheons she helped organize.

“Mary was one of the catalysts for helping create and foster that ‘family feel,’” Murrell echoed. “She encouraged Halloween dress-up day and office decorations for Halloween. She encouraged the multinational Tropical family members to contribute their favorite recipes to a Tropical recipe book. She encouraged the annual support of a disadvantaged family. When a major loss impacted a Tropical team member, Mary was out front working to render support and assistance. ‘Bring a dish to work day’ for a super luncheon of varied foods was another organizational activity that helped provide the glue for that ‘family feeling.’ She taught reading at the library to those who could not read. She kept in touch with the Tropical diaspora long after they had left the family and moved on to new lives.”

Murrell said he would remember Kiernan fondly.

“When my assistant, Denise, lost her father, the first sympathy card she received was from Mary, who was always caring and concerned for others,” he said. “The message today is to respect what we all have, support one another, think of others, and work in harmony with our teams. You never know what tomorrow will bring.”

Kiernan said she thought about retiring but just couldn’t bring herself to leave Tropical.

“I have many outside activities which could keep me happy and busy once retired, and I have come close to retirement now for about four years. But where could I find the excitement of a crisis at any moment, the close friendships that I’ve forged here, plus the feeling of pride when I say, ‘I work at Tropical Shipping?’ It can’t get any better than that. Look at the people in your department, build a team, pull together. What makes the Control Center successful is that we like each other. We can fight with each other but walk away as friends. We pick up the slack for each other. We care for and love each other.

Two days after Kiernan’s death, Tropical Shipping’s “Daily Traffic Report & Vessel Utilization” was renamed “Mary’s Vessel Report” in honor of her faithful and loving service to Tropical over the years. People of Saltchuk extends heartfelt condolences to her husband, Bill, her family, and the many friends and colleagues affected by her loss.

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.